Jeremy Corbyn has said that if he is elected prime minister he will scrap the ‘cruel and inhumane’ Universal Credit system, and replace it with a £3 billion “emergency package of reforms”.
As senior party figures meet this weekend to decide Labour’s manifesto, the exact iteration of the policy remains to be seen. But Corbyn has indicated that the benefit cap and two-child limit will be ditched immediately, the five-week-wait for new claimants will be cut down, while benefits sanctions – whereby a claimant’s money is stopped or reduced if they don’t comply with certain commitments – will be suspended.
Other measures include changing the current “digital-only” system which Labour says excludes people without internet access, employing 5,000 new benefit advisors and replacing the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) with a new Department for Social Security.
Universal credit, the Conservative government’s flagship welfare reform which merges six existing benefits into one, has been besieged by problems from the very start. Claimants have been pushed to food banks, with new figures released this week showing April to September 2019 to be the busiest half-year period for Trussell Trust food banks since the charity opened. According to the Trussell Trust the main reasons for people needing emergency food are low benefit income (36%), and delays (18%) or changes (16%) to benefits being paid.
As well as an epidemic of hunger, there is evidence the five-week-wait has pushed some women into sex work and concerns universal credit is behind rising rent arrears, evictions and homelessness.
We spoke to people affected to find out what they make of Labour’s plan to scrap universal credit and overhaul the benefits system.
Katrina Redding, stay-at-home mum and carer, Somerset.
Katrina lives with her husband, a self-employed mechanic and is a full time mum to five children, one of whom has disabilities. She agrees that Universal Credit is “cruel and inhumane” and believes Labour’s plan to scrap it is a good idea.
“So many people including myself have been thrown into debt, struggle to budget and pay bills,” she says. “Not knowing what you will receive each month also leaves you unable to budget.”
“I spent 5 weeks with no income at all and fell into rent arrears of over £600. We had to use the food bank twice and as a mother I feel emotionally broken not being able to care for my family the way I used too. We never know what the next month brings, good or bad. For example, this month I will have £264 to look after my five children and pay the bills and just pray my husband can earn more on top. A month is a long time to go on £264. Universal credit is destroying families.”
Liz Latter, CEO of Radio Respect, Bognor Regis.
Latter says she agrees with Labour’s plan to scrap universal credit, “especially the digital only system as the people claiming universal credit won’t be able to afford the devices needed to access their journals.”
Radio Respect works with people who are out of work and suffering with mental health issues many of whom “have trouble either understanding the system or accessing it. It’s hard for someone with mental health problems to complete a claim form online, it can be confusing and intimidating with no one to speak to and guide them through it”.
She also agrees the system is “cruel and inhumane”. “It’s leaving people in poverty, we’ve seen a rise of families coming in for food bank vouchers. People are getting in debt with rent arrears and utility bills.”
Jubilee Plus equips churches to effectively support those facing poverty and injustice, including by setting up a network of food banks.
Williams says: “I think what’s interesting about this Labour party policy is that it goes further than the vast majority of charities are asking for. Most charities like Jubilee Plus, The Trussell Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, some of these big national charities, none of them have asked or campaigned for universal credit to be scrapped because I think we all think the contents of it is good. However it needs radical reform to be fit for purpose. So I hope that the Labour party will radically change it, that they’ll get rid of the five week wait, that they’ll remove the two child limit, that they’ll remove the freeze, which I know is going to happen anyway.
“Whoever is elected we hope they will make significant improvements to a fundamentally flawed system of benefits but at this point to scrap it would cost billions and those who have just managed to get their heads around it, you know, it will throw them potentially back into a chaotic situation.”
Erin Smithers, Student nurse, Leeds.
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Erin, a single mum to two sons and student nurse, has documented the difficulties she’s experienced on universal credit on Instagram. “It absolutely needs to go,” she says and welcomes Labour’s plan to scrap it agreeing “wholeheartedly” the system is cruel and inhumane.
“When I left an abusive relationship, I had to turn to universal credit. In the weeks that it took for my first payment, I lost my home (and that of my children then aged two and six) which was incredibly difficult for them. We had no fixed abode for a couple of months and I was going hungry often as I had to choose between the travel money for my placement or eating. It was an incredibly stressful time and has affected my mental health, and my six year old’s, massively.
“For the first few months we were also paid the incorrect amount – £180 a month and it took continual logging on to my online journal and numerous phone calls to finally have this sorted. It is still very low.”
“We can’t expect anyone in Government currently to understand the real impact of austerity cuts, because they will never have any firsthand understanding – it is miles away from anything they have ever known. That isn’t their fault entirely, but the lack of attempt to find compassion with people being penalised by such a cruel system is grotesque. It has most definitely contributed to thousands of deaths and is failing those waiting for disability payments the most and it really is unliveable. How is anyone supposed to ever excel when they have no energy because they’re tired of fighting for what they a) need b) deserve, and on top of that they probably can’t even afford a proper meal most nights of the week!”
Paul* (name changed to protect his identity), Housing benefits officer.
Having worked as a housing benefits officer since the 1980s Paul has seen plenty of change to the benefits system during his career. He believes universal credit “has been done on the cheap and has “been done badly.”
“Basically it’s designed to be punitive isn’t it, that’s the intention, it’s designed to immiserate people and that’s where it’s moving in the wrong direction.”
Paul is reserving judgment until he hears more about Labour’s plan to scrap universal credit. “The devil is always in the detail, because of course there’s a question of what do you replace it with? The idea of universal credit was generally regarded as being quite a good thing but the whole thing fundamentally got bogged down in treasury cuts and the fact that it was an extremely ambitious project. It would have made more sense, in my view, to restrict it to the number of groups that it actually covered when it was first rolled out. The computerisation is very ambitious and the service delivery is crap.”
Natalie Leal is a freelance journalist.